Is there a real role for ‘uptalk’?

One of the commonest verbal irritants I encounter in my communication skills training courses is ‘uptalk’ – a rising inflection at the end of sentences that makes statements sound like questions.

I observe this speech pattern most commonly among younger women, and I invariably urge them to try to change a habit that makes them seem – to my mind at least – uncertain, hesitant and lacking in authority.

But am I right? Could it be that uptalk is a much subtler and more strategic linguistic tool than I had recognised – useful for confirming understanding, inviting engagement and forestalling interruptions?

Uptalk, also sometimes known as ‘upspeak’ or ‘high-rising terminal’  , is nothing new, although it seems to be becoming more prevalent by the day. The term was first coined in 1993 by a journalism lecturer called James Gorman in an article in the New York Times, but socio-linguists have dated its presence in the English-speaking world at least back to the 1950s and possibly centuries earlier.

Valley girls and Australian soaps

In America uptalk became popularised as ‘Valley Girl Speak’ (think Alicia Silverstone in the 1995 film Clueless) while in Australia it was the standard teen conversational style of daily soaps like Neighbours.

 Uptalk often features as a pet hate of people who consider themselves guardians of the English language. Interviewed for BBC’s Room 101 a few years back, Stephen Fry described it as ‘the language of the Sunny Delight generation’ which had ‘now invaded Britain entirely’.

There has been some fight back more recently. In his book on the subject, published in 2015, psycholinguist Paul Warren claims that uptalk ‘needs a new publicity agent’. Far from betraying doubt or lack of confidence in the speaker, he says, uptalk can signal openness, with the ‘interactional’ function of inviting the listener to engage in the conversation or checking for comprehension of what has been said.

Similar arguments have been advanced by researchers from the University of California, San Diego, who examined the form and use of uptalk in a study of 23 young Southern Californians men and women from diverse backgrounds.

Participants were recorded carrying out various different speaking tasks, including using a map to give directions, reading a transcript of a sitcom scene, retelling the scene, asking questions and making statements.

Men use uptalk – but less often than women

One interesting finding was that uptalk was not confined to young women, although they used it twice as often as their male counterparts.

Another was that uptalk was particularly common in the map task, when speakers used this seemingly questioning style to seek confirmation that their directions were understood.

The researchers also found that uptalk could serve the strategic purpose of ‘floor-holding’ – staving off interruptions by signalling that the speaker had more to say. This is where a big gender gap emerged, with women uptalking to hold the floor nearly 60 per cent of the time and men just 28 per cent of the time.

Women get interrupted more

Could it be that women are bigger floor-hoggers than men? Very unlikely, say the researchers, who believe women are more likely to use floor-holding as a defence mechanism because they get interrupted more often than men!

So, if uptalk is more than just an irritating verbal habit, should I change the advice I give to the young women I train?

I think I will have to fall back on the principle that context is all. If I am focusing on an interactive conversation with a stakeholder, where it is important for my client to keep checking for engagement, understanding and agreement, I will go easy on the uptalk.

Equally if I am prepping someone to face a rowdy meeting and the threat of heckling, I might concede a role for uptalk as a floor-holding tactic.

But if I am working with someone who needs to project confidence and authority in order deliver a persuasive presentation, make a convincing case in a media interview or overcome objections in a negotiation, I will continue to argue that uptalk can only be a hindrance, not a help.

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